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Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The world of Nigeria’s trainee pilots

Pilots trainee
A good knowledge or flair for sciences, five O’ level credits that must include mathematics, physics and geography remain the major academic entry rerequirements for aspiring pilots to gain admission into the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT). But cadets will insist the cost (school fees) could most times pose perhaps the greatest challenge to many students’ dream.
Established by the Nigerian government in partnership with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in 1960, the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT) sited in the ancient city of Zaria has over the last five decades served as the sole training ground for thousands of Nigerian pilots (for both commercial and military aircraft) as well as those from neighbouring West African countries.
“At present, it costs about N7.5million to train as a pilot at the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology,” said Valerie Ashiekara, a female cadet pilot at the college. “But that is relatively cheap; if you were to go outside Nigeria, the fee could go up to between N10 and N13million depending on the country.”
“The huge cost remains perhaps the biggest challenge because you can get the basic entry requirements and then the admission, but without the funds to proceed the dream dies,” said Jethro Baka, one of male cadets. “And I tell you that there are so many young men and women who dream to be pilots but had to bury those dreams because they just could not afford to foot the bills.”
Ashiekara and Baka, sponsored by the Benue State Government, and rounding off their training programmes at NCAT, shared their experiences – their motivations and challenges – with Education Review in Zaria recently.

The motivation
For Ashiekara who attended the Queen of the Rosary Secondary School, Gboko, Benue State, the motivation to become a pilot did not occur until she was about 18 years, some years after completing her secondary education. “As a child, I was this kind of girl that always wanted to do things that other girls of my age would dare not attempt,” she said. “Many girls would say they don’t like science subjects; they don’t want to be engineers or technicians. But for me, that’s the kind of area I will say I want to go into. I was good in physics, mathematics, and geography. At 18, I flew a commercial plane as a passenger for the first time, and I said to myself, ‘oh Valerie, I want to be a pilot’ and from that day the journey started as I started asking questions on how to realize my dream.”
It was in the course of that, that she stumbled on a sponsorship advertisement by the Benue State government seeking for bright secondary school leavers to train as pilots. Of the many that applied, only six were eventually selected. “I applied and passed the exams, and I found myself at NCAT,” she said, with a broad smile.
Unlike Ashiekara, Baka’s dream to fly started right from his secondary school days. “I attended the Special Science Senior Secondary School, Makurdi, Benue State and that is where the I started dreaming or having the passion of becoming a pilot,” he said. “Anytime in those secondary school days I looked up into the sky and saw an aircraft, I couldn’t stop imagining the men and women who defied the law of gravity to take off with this machine from ground into the air and then also bring it down. One day I said to myself, after completing my studies here I want to be a pilot; I want to be among those group of men and women who could defy the law of gravity.”
Baka’s entry into NCAT to fulfill his childhood dream was also realized, courtesy of the Benue State government. “NCAT boasts of the best training equipment and highly skilled instructors as could be obtained anywhere in the world, but many Nigerian students who study here do so, however, under some form of government scholarships,” he said. “It is one-year-and-six months training here and I have barely a month to complete the training and then get a Commercial Pilot Licence (CLP) and a Diploma Certificate in Standard Piloting and my lifelong dream will be fulfilled.”

First flight experience

“Oh, I can’t say I was jittery or really scared,” Ashiekara recounts. “We had done so many flight simulations with instructors for months ahead of the inaugural flight. Simulator gives you almost the same experience and challenges you will confront in a real flight. And I think I was doing well. And then this day came and I was there in the aircraft. It was my first practical flying experience on an aircraft. I told myself I could do it. And I did it; I took off and returned safely and my instructors were excited.”
Ashiekara said after a successful first flight, she thereafter haboured no fear of flying. “I use to be scared of flying,” she confessed. “And when I took off after taxing I was still scared. But then as I went up the more into the sky I saw nature. I was tearing through the clouds with speed. It was a beautiful sight to behold and a lovely experience for me. And I said, ‘wow, I have done it’ and I was full of smiles. And I returned and landed safely. After that first experience, fear vanished. And in the last couple of months, I have flown so many times successfully.”
Was her initial fear in any way associated with the fact that she was a female in an industry that is apparently male-dominated, you asked.
Ashiekara’s response: “I cannot say whatever fears I had were as a result of the fact that I am a woman. The first time I arrived here, I was told we are all men and that no one is a woman. And so I allowed that to sink into my head. And I said I am a man here.”
Like Ashiekara’s, Baka’s first flight experience was not, in any way, different. “I wasn’t really scared. I had practised severally on the simulator,” he said. “That day when I went inside the cockpit the only prayer I said was, ‘let me land safely’ because to take off with an aircraft might be easy but landing on an inaugural flight requires a lot of concentration. In fact, landing is the major challenge. When I landed successfully, I told myself, ‘I have done it.’ And from that day I have enjoyed flying. It is fun for me.”
Asked if he was scared he might crash-land his inaugural flight, he said: “not really. The courage to defy the law of gravity and that of nature’s numerous fluctuating weather conditions up in the sky with an aircraft remains the greatest constant challenge to making a successful career as a pilot. So I was fully prepared and was not really scared I could crash the aircraft. It is not the dream of any pilot to crash; it is not my wish and it won’t even happen to me.”
Baka explained that because the mechanics of an aircraft is science-based, it is therefore important for prospective student pilots to be above average in their knowledge of sciences.
“No one says art student cannot be a pilot,” he explained. “But an above average knowledge of science subjects like physics and mathematics gives you the edge because the concept behind the manufacture of an aircraft, how it takes off and lands, how the parts work, and all the safety processes involved in ensuring a safe flight for the crew and passengers are all science-related. I wonder how someone who doesn’t love sciences can be a good pilot.”

The challenges
Baka and Ashiekara said the major challenge as trainee pilots is gaining the requisite scores in all subjects so as to be awarded the Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) and the Diploma in Piloting by NCAT. “Once admission is given and a trainee resumes in school, the main challenge is how to pass your courses because the minimum you can get in any subject to be considered as having passed that subject is 75 per cent,” Ashiekara informed.
“And that is certainly not an easy task because day and night you must be up and doing, reading and practising,” she added. “Flying an aircraft as a trainee pilot may appear challenging, but the Herculean task is however that of passing theoretical exams with scores that are not less than 75 per cent in all subjects,” Baka agreed. “We work extra hard on the theory and on the practical. But we get scared more on the theoretical exams because in all subjects you must score at least 75 per cent before you can graduate. For the period of our studies here, there is no time anyone can say is for leisure. In fact, piloting is not a career for lazy people.”
The challenge of staying fit and healthy at all times to keep the job is also an ever-present one, Baka added: “Piloting leaves you with no room for a careless lifestyle at any time. You must be disciplined, on and off work; you must stay off alcohol, and must maintain a healthy body and mind and this to some people can also be a huge challenge.”
Ashiekara noted one other challenge: weather which she calls, “the pilots’ greatest friend or enemy.” “From the moment you switch on the engine on the ground, to when you taxi, take off and then land, it is all about the management of the weather conditions,” she said. “Information on weather is therefore very vital to the pilot if he must have a successful or safe flight.”

The reward
Baka said though piloting appears to be risky, it is a career for only those with the passion and courage to fly. “It may not be the best remunerated career, but it is also not the least-paying,” he said. “But if you have the passion to fly, it is a career that comes with lots of benefits, like you get to see the world and meet different peoples of the world as a pilot more than any other career option.”
Ashiekara, said as a woman, piloting brings in more income than any other paid job a woman could venture into. “Once I am done with NCAT, I plan to move to overseas to another flying school and study and be type-rated (a form of higher certification) on the bigger aircraft as a commercial pilot,” she said. “I don’t know of any other job that pays like this and allows you to enjoy your life, I am speaking as a woman.”
Aside being a successful pilot flying the bigger Boeing and Airbuses, Ashiekara also nurses the dream of being an ambassador for NCAT. “One day I hope to return to my Alma Mater, Queen of the Rosary Secondary School in Gboko to speak to more young girls and see how I can bring them into this school,” she informed. “I want to see more female pilots in Nigeria than we currently have. That’s my next dream.”

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